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Katherine Kirk on Dealing with Teamwork Hell

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Dysfunction in teams can truly feel like "being in hell", according to Katherine Kirk, cofounder of the Inclusive Collaboration movement. In her talk How to Navigate Out of Hell at the upcoming conference, she describes work-hell as feeling confined within an endless loop of unhappiness, feeling out of control and not being able to influence our own destiny for sustained periods of time.

Drawing from her studies in ancient eastern philosophical practices, she advises teams and individuals to: deliberately look for and see the bigger picture, actively manage your own response to stressful situations, maintain your own integrity and ethical standards and diligently take small steps rather than trying to address every aspect of the situation at one time.

The Aginext conference runs in London on 21-22 March and is focused on looking at the future of agile, lean, CI/CD and DevOps transformations.

InfoQ spoke to Kirk about her talk and the practical ideas she will present for dealing with dysfunction in teams.

InfoQ: Why is it that some office situations feel like being in hell?

Katherine Kirk: Work-hell is when you feel confined within an endless loop of unhappiness

  • Difficulty isn't necessarily hell. Overall human beings don't mind situations that are difficult, as long as we believe we are empowered to do something about it to make it better, or can see that eventually we can get it the way we would like things to be.
  • The reason some situations feel like hell and others don't is primarily all about whether we feel trapped indefinitely or not.

There is actually a pattern of how work-hell arises – which is often helpful to understand if you are trying to work your way out of it. Here is an excerpt of the book I am currently writing that explains it a little:

  • Consider that the nature of business is that all that is within it (e.g. projects, products and programs) will eventually degrade, dysfunction and expire. Just like human beings age, get ill and die. It's the nature of our universe (check out the scientific concepts of entropy and the arrow of time).
  • Fundamentally humans don't like being out of control of that. We sometimes want things to 'last forever' or 'stay as they are' longer than they do.
  • In light of this, human beings are experts at working very hard to prevent degradation, dysfunction and expiry so that they get what they want. And have even learned to turn it into an advantage. If a product expires, we create a new one, if a project degrades we transform it, if a situation dysfunctions we innovate. That's the basis of success of humanity.
  • So – with projects, products and programs – we can resist entropy and are often successful. We become pleased with ourselves, our teams, our divisions and our company – for a while.
  • But eventually degradation, dysfunction and expiry begin bothering us again. Because that's the nature of business. And entropy appears to be 'winning'. Consider: what project, program or product won't eventually degrade, dysfunction and expire? If we don't want it to happen – we get upset.
  • Examples of entropy upsetting us are things like wanting profit to still increase as it always used to but the business context has changed, or wanting a defunct product to last for just one more year, or a wanting a once-successful-project to continue to be productive even when key individuals and demands from the customer have changed.
  • If there is nothing we can do to prevent what we don't want to happen or it is far more difficult than we imagine to make our 'wants come true' then our human reaction of disappointment, anxiety and frustration increases.
  • During that process we begin to take it out on each other with behaviours like blame, shame, hierarchy, rules and manipulation. All because we are trying to stop the degradation, dysfunction and expiry that we dislike.
  • That still won't necessarily create work-hell if we eventually feel we can change the situation into something we prefer but does become work-hell when it seems like it can't be changed – no matter what we do… and that cycle continues far beyond our ability to cope.
  • That's when we get intensely stressed, fatigued and arrogant – and, over time that turns office situations that might have just been difficult into full blown horrible work hell.

InfoQ: What are some examples of situations that cause the behaviours that put people into that hellish space?

Kirk: Work-hell situations are created by locking people into the same difficulty (no matter what you do) over sustained periods of time, such as:

  • Constantly pushing beyond capacity and capability– creating stress and exhaustion
  • Continually disengaging individuals from being empowered to influence and participate – creating the feeling of being trapped
  • Persistent political quagmire – creating the feeling of being manipulated
  • Always forcing same-ness – creating exclusive, rigid factions, boundaries and monocultures

InfoQ: Aside from just quitting and finding another job, what are some ways that people can cope with, and change, the situation they find themselves in?

Kirk: I've found five ways that never fail me (or, from what I've seen, teams, divisions, companies and leaders) – especially when you do them all together at the same time:

  • Continually develop your contextual understanding – the bigger picture helps create much more effective action
  • Utilize your reaction to determine outcome – 'judo' difficulty – you might not be able to change what is being done to you, but you can certainly change your reaction
  • Create meaningfulness out of difficulty through learning loops – use difficult situations to build a deeper level of wisdom about yourself, others and the alternatives around you – this will lead to you making much wiser decisions
  • Gentle diligent persistence forward – small steps for a longer period will preserve your precious energy and outlast drama
  • Keeping to ethics and principles – don't make your situation any worse than it has to be; don't let others cause you to behave in ways you regret

InfoQ: Where have you drawn your inspiration for these ideas from?


  • 10+ years adapting and applying ancient eastern philosophical patterns into ways of reducing difficulty and increasing effectiveness in business and tech
  • Specialising in turning hell scenarios around nearly all of my career
  • Being a student of difficulty rather than a victim of it

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